In early 1887 there appeared, published in the periodical ?eská Thalie, a libretto for a musical drama, Šárka. Its author, Július Zeyer, was one of the most important Czech writers of the age. The young, still relatively unknown composer Leoš Janá?ek began immediately with the setting of Zeyer’s text to music.
The results of his belated attempt to obtain the author’s permission to do so, however, put a damper on Janá?ek’s creative urge: Zeyer forbade him to set the libretto. The author’s restrictive stance was due to the fact that he wanted more reputable composers, such as Dvo?ák or Smetana, to take up work on his text. Two letters from Janá?ek elicited negative answers from Zeyer, whereupon the young composer became discouraged and put aside his work, which by that time (late 1888) had grown to encompass the orchestration of the first two acts.
Almost exactly 30 years later, in late 1917 or early 1918, Janá?ek, who had meanwhile become famous, happened to rediscover the materials from his first opera Šárka – in an old chest, as he himself said. He remained convinced of the quality of this early work, and set about correcting the vocal lines, in accordance with his concept of speech melody which he had since developed. He then handed the piano score of the third act to his student Osvald Chlubna. Chlubna was to execute the instrumentation, albeit without access to the score of the first two acts. Janá?ek was satisfied with Chlubna’s finished work, although the Chlubna manuscript contains numerous later changes in Janá?ek’s hand.
A renewed attempt to gain permission to set the text to music was met with immediate approval by Zeyer’s legal successors. Janá?ek continued working, making further corrections to all three acts of his Šárka: he cut some measures, added others, and removed whole passages in order to insert them elsewhere. Only afterwards, sometime during the year of 1919, was Janá?ek’s publisher, Universal Edition, informed of the existence of a new work.
A further six years went by until Janá?ek was finally able, in 1925, to attend the premiere of Šárka. In the meanwhile, the composer had continued to revise certain passages; in the summer of 1925, he handed over the score to copyists, who wrote out the instrumental parts.
The premiere took place on 11 November 1925 at the national theatre in Brno, and was a complete success.